Guest post by Science & Sensibility contributer Christine H. Morton, PhD
(Full disclosure: the organization I work for, CMQCC, has been working with representatives from the Preeclampsia Foundation over the past year on the CMQCC task force developing a Preeclampsia Toolkit, and I am a big fan of their executive director, Eleni Tsigas, and frequent re-tweeter of @preeclampsia).
The Preeclampsia Foundation released a new guide to pregnancy and birth books last month, a comprehensive report distilled from a review of more than 60 such books, on their accuracy, coverage and clarity of information on hypertensive complications in pregnancy. As readers of S&S are well aware, there are numerous books geared to expectant couples, pregnant women, and male partners; by authors who claim their authority by virtue of their clinical degrees and practice, their teaching and research credentials, as well was their personal and celebrity experience. This is the first time I’ve seen a guide to pregnancy and birth advice books from the lens of a serious disorder in pregnancy: preeclampsia.
May was Preeclampsia Awareness Month. Hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, including elevated blood pressure, preeclampsia, eclampsia and HELLP syndrome are estimated to affect 12-22% of pregnant women and their babies each year.1 Preeclampsia is a leading cause of pregnancy-related death in the US and in the state of California, and one of the most preventable. Adverse neonatal outcomes are higher for infants born to women with pregnancies complicated by hypertension. Care guidelines have recently been developed in many countries, including the UK, Canada and Australia, with a revised practice bulletin to be released from ACOG later this year. A key focus in many of these guidelines is accurate measuring of Blood Pressure, and standardized pathways of care, depending on the clinical situation. These guidelines note that one reason for their creation is the clear evidence that the surveillance of women with suspected or confirmed preeclampsia is variable between practitioners.2,3
Seeking to understand their experience, women turn to books, their childbirth educators and doulas to help them navigate through this new and unexpected turn into complicated pregnancy. While many women have healthy pregnancies and births, those who are having symptoms, or have been diagnosed with preeclampsia, eclampsia or HELLP syndrome, need accurate and clear information. Early detection, and treatment, is a proven way to lessen the severity of the disease, and mitigate its impact. Are some pregnancy and childbirth guidebooks better than others in informing readers about these issues?
To answer this question, researchers Jennifer Carney, MA and Douglas Woelkers, MD reviewed more than 60 pregnancy and childbirth advice books and ranked them using a consistent set of criteria in five categories: Depth of Coverage, Placement of Coverage, Clarity and Accuracy of Information, Description of Symptoms, and Postpartum Concerns. In their methods section, they note that
“Books were downgraded for out-of-date information, missing or inaccurate information and placement issues, including inaccurate or inadequate indexing. Of the more than 60 books reviewed, none ranked above “8” in all five categories. In fact, only a handful of books scored above “8” in the category of “Postpartum Concerns,” since many books routinely state that the cure for preeclampsia and related disorders is the birth of the baby.”
Childbirth educators and doulas have strong views on the ‘best’ books to guide women through pregnancy and childbirth and might be surprised to find that even best selling books like Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth (2003) scored only a 2.6, while the much excoriated, yet highest selling advice book: What To Expect When You’re Expecting (2009) ranked last in the Preeclampsia Foundation’s TOP TEN list, with a score of 7.2. All books reviewed are listed in the Appendix of the report.
One helpful feature of the report is a sampling of questionable claims found in pregnancy guidebooks:
“Preeclampsia never happens before the twentieth week, but your blood pressure may start to rise steadily after this. Delivery of the baby and placenta ends the problem.” FromConception, Pregnancy, and Birth by Miriam Stoppard. In rare instances preeclampsia can occur prior to 20 weeks; it can also occur up to six weeks postpartum.
The report further explains why it’s important for books on childbirth to also mention preeclampsia, eclampsia and HELLP Syndrome, since this disease can develop immediately prior to, during or after delivery. Among the childbirth books, the reviewers found,
Only Penny Simkin’s book The Birth Partner: A Complete Guide to Childbirth for Dads, Doulas, and All Other Labor Companions (2007) provides adequate information about preeclampsia, eclampsia, and HELLP syndrome. Although this book incorrectly uses the term pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH) to describe preeclampsia and eclampsia, it provides a useful list of symptoms and the possible treatments, including cesarean delivery. It also presents some of the emotional issues that might arise from a diagnosis of PIH and includes some information on HELLP syndrome. It acknowledges the possibility of postpartum preeclampsia and eclampsia, something that many of the general pregnancy books omit.
The report can help childbirth educators and doulas point women to the best information about hypertensive disorders, but its authors also hope these results will guide authors in future revisions. At the very least, up to date terminology, accurate information and complete indexing is critical in revisions. Books geared primarily to women with relatively healthy pregnancies always face the challenge of balancing reassurance, the optimality of physiological birth and the diverse range of potential complications in pregnancy. Yet such books can point readers to resources like the Preeclampsia Foundation for up-to-date and user-friendly information and community pages.
Take-away points for Childbirth Educators and Doulas:
- Check your website and be sure to link to Preeclampsia Foundation website for unbiased, evidence-based information on this disease. They are on Facebook too.
- Tell your students to ask about their blood pressure at all prenatal visits and during labor. They should know what their ‘normal’ range is, and if their BP is ever above 140 systolic or 90 diastolic, to be alert to signs and symptoms of preeclampsia, and report these changes to their care providers.
- Many factors can affect BP readings: BP cuff size should be appropriate, especially among women with a high BMI; the measurement should be taken while sitting, with arm at heart level; automated BP machines may underestimate the BP.
- Remind pregnant women (and their partners) that although lots of attention will naturally be focused on the baby, they have to be alert to the new mother’s health symptoms postpartumtoo. While postpartum is a whole new normal, women need to know that any significant bleeding, fever, headaches, nausea, or visual disturbances, are NOT normal, and they should follow up with their health care provider immediately.
Preeclampsia is a serious, if unlikely, complication of pregnancy. Women diagnosed or at risk for developing hypertensive disorders of pregnancy can find accurate information for all literacy levels (and some Spanish language resources), as well as a supportive community at the Preeclampsia Foundation, a US-based 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization whose mission is to reduce maternal and infant illness and death due to preeclampsia and other hypertensive disorders of pregnancy by providing patient support and education, raising public awareness, catalyzing research and improving health care practices.
1. American College of Obsetricians and Gynecologists. Diagnosis and management of preeclampsia and eclampsia; ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 33. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2002;99:159-167.
2. Repke JT PM, Holzman GB, Schulkin J. Hypertension in Pregnancy and Preeclampsia: Knowledge and Clinical Practice Among Obstetrician-Gynecologists. Journal of Reproductive Medicine.2002;47(6):472-476.
3. Caetano M OM, von Dadelszen P, Hannah ME, Logan AG, Gruslin A, Willan A, Magee LA. A Survey of Canadian Practitioners Regarding Diagnosis and Evaluation of the Hypertensive Disorders of Pregnancy. Hypertens Pregnancy. 2004;23(2):197-209.
4. Hogan JL, et al. Hypertens Pregnancy. Body Mass Index and Blood Pressure Measurement during Pregnancy. 2011;30(4):396-400. PMID: 20726743
Read more about Christine H. Morton, PHD on our contributor page.